THE SCREAMS IN THE SILENCE
by Samuel Oladele
The get-together venue was two-hundred kilometers away. Slouched in the front passenger seat in Michael’s Audi, I pictured my obituary glued on every wall in my street. GONE TOO SOON. Perhaps I was seconds to my obituary with that cigarette smoke curling out of Michael’s mouth?
I gawked at him. Cigarette hanging between his lips, his cheeks sucked in. A gush of camphor-white smoke surged towards the windscreen—the smoke drifting towards me. I held my breath, watched it dance out the window. One, two, …, seven, I started counting until all of it was out the window, and, open-mouthed, I inhaled, the car air safe again.
“Remember I’m allergic to smoke,” I wanted to say, but he knew already—no need reminding him. I wasn’t ready to deny a man his latitude to smoke in his car. If he tossed out the cigarette after telling him, it would be because he pitied me. I never wanted pity. I’d rather die than be pitied. But I wasn’t ready to die.
I had people I loved too much, people who would starve themselves for months if I were dead. My girlfriend would surely have a heart attack and, for a year, cry herself to sleep. She would even die single. Our relationship was five years old. Letting go would be like cracking rock with one’s head. And Rebecca, my younger sister, would be left alone in this world. I was her only living family.
I was not ready to die. I yearned for a family, kids I’d watch cartoons with and watch grow, a wife I’d cuddle at night and share aspirations with. Until I achieved these, I was going nowhere.
“Tunde. Sir, T.” Michael darted me a glance. “You’re still that guy, that I-don’t-talk-much guy.”
I nodded and faked a tight-lipped smile.
He took the cigarette from his mouth. Out of the window went a dense smoke. “Anyone you can’t wait to see at the get-together? All those our babes have grown now… and married. Perhaps we can hook up with the singles.”
“You and this your Reverend-Father-boring-attitude. I hope you don’t die like this.” He chuckled.
He turned up the car radio volume, and a rap song blared out. He rocked his head back and forth, gibberish pouring out of his mouth. Not once had I heard him rap—he was a good singer, yes, but not a rapper—in the three years, we shared a bunk in boarding school. But a lot had changed within the six years we had graduated from secondary school. Even smoking was new. His dark cracked lips too.
I edged my face toward the car door, breathing harmless air, eyes on the leafless trees sprinting backward, their leaves sprawling dry below them.
There were moments I had wanted death to swallow me. Moments I wished I had been nonexistent. But not this moment. This sad, sucrose-sweet life had cut me a thousand times. And more. I was never a happy person. Perhaps neither a happy baby too. My childhood was terrible, chunks of solitude and rejections here and there. On many occasions, my dad, a drunk, said to me, “I never asked for this,”—pointing at me—”but you came… with your sickness. Had to marry because you were growing in your mother.”
Once, my mum left me at a supermarket. She came back three hours later, said she was having a bad day. My mum was a sad woman. I must have inherited her sadness. The only time she was happy was when her only friend, Mrs. Ibrahim, this chubby woman who cried when she laughed, visited.
My parents were always traveling. Lagos today. Abuja tomorrow. When they were at home, they quarrelled a lot, Mum raining curses on him or throwing her high-heels at him, Dad calling her a prostitute. Because they were always fighting, the four of us were never in the same place. Either Rebecca, Mum and I, or Rebecca, Dad and I. Never the four of us. Mum took us to church on Sundays, the fun park on Christmas, Mr. Biggs on our birthdays, and Dad drove us to school.
I always prayed they leave the house so that it could be peaceful. But it was never peaceful, never felt like home. When they weren’t home, miss Seyi, the house help, took care of us. She was a small woman with a temper that broke into yells and insults if we went outside to play, or asked her to change the TV channel to a cartoon channel, and if she was having a bad day, she lashed our buttocks with her whip.
Only my room gave me peace. So I was always there, shunning the world sliding by outside my bedroom, studying my school books, reading Charles Dickens and J.D. Salinger, tucking away the rest of my childhood from my parents’ rejection, from their quarrels, from Seyi’s yells and whip.
The Audi slowed. The butt of a fresh cigarette was between Michael’s lips, lighter lighting the other end. Smoke spurted out. Cars dashed past us, vanishing beyond the horizon, where the sky rose into a stretch of blue and scattered clouds. A puff of smoke sailed towards me.
My silence scared me, for it would kill me. Like several occasions, I had chosen silence again. In boarding school, I once sat in class and watched three girls, who were my classmates, slap Rebecca. She was heading into my class to see me when one of the three girls standing by the door grabbed her wrist.
Couldn’t she greet? They asked her. And before she could answer them, each of their palms slammed against her cheek. Rebecca staggered, then held the door, before scurrying away. I wanted to stand up. I wanted to yell at those girls, but this was a boarding school. If I did, Rebecca would become a target. So I remained on my seat, updating my geography note.
Two days later, she grabbed my wrist as I was walking out of the dining hall. On her wrist was a small bandage. Those same girls had told her to frog-jump in the girls’ hostel, she said, and when she refused, they broke a tree branch and flogged her. She stared at me, perhaps waiting for me to act like a big brother to defend her.
“Sorry,” I said. “I will talk to them.”
But I never did. Rebecca kept telling me how they snatched her provisions, how they whipped her bareback, how they cursed her, yet I did nothing. My inaction vexed her. For a whole session, she shunned me. And gradually, we became strangers. Strangers tied by blood.
Another of my not-speaking-up moment occurred one August afternoon, a year ago, in the market. I was buying some foodstuffs. About three open-fronted shops from me, a lanky man in babariga stood behind a young lady checking out bunches of plantain to buy. The man peeped around, snatched a brown purse out of the young lady’s handbag, and trotted away. Thief, I wanted to scream. I wanted to run after him, to grab his neck, to wrestle him to the ground. I wanted to be a hero. But I was not a hero. What strength did I have? What if he had a knife in his babariga? What if he stabbed me as I’d try to grab him? What if… So I stood there instead, looking like a rabbit. Minutes later, the young lady fumbled through her handbag and scattered everything in it on the ground, searching for her purse.
Of all the times I had not spoken up, someone should have strangled me for this one. It happened two years ago after my parents passed away. The loss was hard on Rebecca, for she had forgiven them of their neglect. She was always at home on weekends, playing chess with Dad and cooking with Mum. She sent me pictures—she and Dad, cheek to cheek, a chessboard on a glass stool in the background; she and Mum in the kitchen, open-lipped smiles across their faces—thinking I would also forgive them and come home. She never stopped sending me pictures until they died in their house after a fire accident. I should have been there for her after their death. Perhaps if I had, she wouldn’t have attempted suicide. Thank God she survived.
There I was still sitting next to Michael, next to his cigarette smoke. I edged my face away from the car door and faced him. The aftermath of Rebecca’s suicide attempt invaded my mind again: how pale and gaunt and tearful she was when she told me she never wanted to lose me. I never wanted to lose her too. I had to speak up. I faced Michael.
“Michael,” I said.
He turned and blew a dense smoke toward me. The smoke curled into my nostrils, into my mouth, went through my airways. He was befouling my airways. I clutched my chest. I was drowning inside.
Air. I needed air. I started coughing. Wheezing. I fumbled for my inhaler in my jeans pocket. I pulled out. With trembling hands, I uncorked it, pushed it into my mouth. Thrice I pressed. Salbutamol flooded my mouth. I pressed thrice again—another flood of Salbutamol. I was still wheezing and still trembling.
Michael was talking, but I couldn’t hear him. I pressed the inhaler thrice again. Pain surged through my chest. Weakness quaked the whole of me. The inhaler fell. Michael held my wrist, and the feeling of his cold palm dwindled. The world around me dimmed, then blurred. Light petered out. The world vanished.
I woke up later to pairs of worried-looking eyes hovering over me at the roadside. The air was warm in my nostrils.
“Give him space! He’s awake!” Micheal was on his knees, his palm under my head. He held my arm, and I staggered to my feet.
Still feeble, I averted the strange eyes, my back to everyone. Michael thanked everyone as they went back into their cars, before leading me into the Audi, walked to the driver’s car door and climbed in.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He fastened his seat belt.
“But, you already know.”
“I forgot. You should have reminded me.”
I stared at my phone and double-clicked the screen. The screen lighted up—no mobile signal.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
He pushed the car key into the ignition, started the engine, which roared to life. We continued on our journey.
The Audi was now speeding like a hurricane wind, the trees moonwalking. Sun rays streamed into the car. The car air was now fresh and nontoxic, though the stench of cigarettes was still present.
Michael kept apologizing. He kept darting me, sorry looks, those looks I loathed.